By Laura Hill
, associate director and research fellow, Public Policy Institute of California and Magnus Lofstrom
, research fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This commentary appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune
on February 26, 2011
By 2025, California will need 1 million more college graduates than it can produce. The DREAM Act would have given the state one way to begin to fill that gap by encouraging more qualified students to get a college education. The measure – dead for now – would have provided a path to legal status for young illegal immigrants who go to college. In California, where an estimated one-quarter of the nation’s illegal immigrants live, as many as 190,000 would have qualified.
President Barack Obama noted the number of students who are here illegally and excelling in U.S. schools when he called on Congress to take up immigration reform. It’s not at all clear that federal lawmakers will do so. But there are still steps California can take to increase the number of college graduates in the state and ensure a better economic future for all of its residents.
Many undocumented immigrants in public schools have already received much of their education in California. In other words, the state has already invested substantially in them. Our work at the Public Policy Institute of California shows that California can get a much better return on its investment.
Here’s what we found: Legalization alone does not improve the job prospects of most illegal immigrants. But those with a bachelor’s degree or more are the exceptions. They see a 10 percent increase in their earnings because of legalization. Legal status tends to improve job prospects for these college-educated immigrants, even in the short term. These improvements for individuals appear to translate into gains in the economy more largely. Analyses by the Congressional Budget Office found that the DREAM Act would have decreased the deficit over the next 10 years.
So what can California do?
Several states, including California, already provide an interim fix that addresses some of the cost barriers of higher education. Under a recent state Supreme Court ruling, qualified undocumented immigrants can continue to pay in-state tuition at California’s universities, colleges and community colleges. This makes higher education possible for some unauthorized immigrants. But without access to state financial aid, college will be impossible for many others. Texas has already figured this out. Despite a more conservative electorate, Texas permits illegal immigrants to apply for and receive state financial aid.
Bills in California to accomplish this goal have been attempted multiple times, but none has made it into law. If policy makers in California want to increase the state’s future college graduates, it would make sense to take a step in this direction now that we have quantified our future needs. Projections to 2025 suggest that the economy will continue to need more and more highly educated workers, but that the state will not be able to meet that demand. If current trends persist, only 35 percent of working-age adults in California will have a college degree in 2025, but 41 percent of jobs will require one.
Expanding access to state financial aid would obviously be just an interim step. After graduation, illegal immigrants still will not be eligible to work legally in the U.S. But our work strongly suggests that some of these young people are already on a path to legalization. PPIC has found that in California, some 53 percent of immigrants who became legal permanent residents in 2003 lived here illegally beforehand. And while legislators are not currently discussing legalization of undocumented immigrants, they will again. In any case, these young people are likely to remain in the U.S. during the ages when they might attend college. Allowing them to compete for financial aid and complete their educations could in the long run help the state bridge the gap between the 1 million college graduates we need and the number we will be able to produce.
Californians have made it clear that they favor a path to legalization. When asked in the September 2010 PPIC statewide survey, 66 percent of Californians answered that most illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in the United States for at least two years ought to be able to keep their jobs and apply for legal status. This option is not on the table now, but California should do what it can to prepare for the state’s future needs. It can do so by encouraging young people brought here as children to work hard in school and envision a future that benefits all of California.